HMUG Reviews

Is there life beyond Excel?

By Marius Schamschula

With the demise of Lotus 1-2-3 for the Mac, it appeared that Microsoft Excel had a monopoly position at the only spreadsheet for the Macintosh. This, however, is not the current state. There are three other contenders (pretenders?) in this market segment. In this review, I will discuss only two, Adrenaline Numbers and Charts, and Casady and Greene’s Spreadsheet 2000. The third product, Profunda was not tested.

Numbers and Charts

This product is the result of the container approach to programming: OpenDoc. If there had been more widespread adoption of the OpenDoc technology, by Apple and it’s partners, then Mac users could better make use of the seemingly unlimited options available. However Apple and the other OpenDoc/LiveObjects partners have abandoned this technology in favor of JavaBeans, a similar technology based on Java.

OpenDoc itself has to be loaded for the Numbers and Charts containers to function. This adds to the size of the System software partition in memory. Once OpenDoc is loaded, the containers themselves only take Mac Plus size chunks typically 384k or 512k.

The interface of both containers is Spartan, when compared to the endless toolbars of Microsoft Excel. The Numbers container, Uses an "Appearance" palette, compare Figure1, to control every visual aspect of the spreadsheet.

Figure 1 The Numbers Appearance Palette.

An other feature of this palette is the control of fill. Unlike Excel, Numbers does not go into a smart fill mode. It has to be specified. Also formulas are not automatically filled. These, can however be duplicated using the "Paste Special" command.

For those that cannot remember the names of all the formulas, the Edition Palette, see Figure 2, has a handy pop-up menu.

Figure 2 The Edition Palette.

In the days of publishing everything to the web, Numbers is ready. It exports html tables. What is lost is the background color and the grid lines, shadows, etc. Numbers has no problem importing an Excel spreadsheet.

In order to chart an array of numbers, one simply drags a Chart container onto the spreadsheet. Charts then prompts the user to specify the range of cells to be charted. Unlike Excel that uses a drawing routine from the Ice-age, likely optimized for a 286 machine running DOS 3.1, Charts makes use of QuickDraw3D. There are numerous three-dimensional chart types. It is simple to change such properties as lighting, transparency, position, etc., using Chart’s Appearance Palette, shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3 Chart’s Appearance Palette.

The use of QD3D permits effective animations of the charts. Thus, one great use of Charts is for presentation graphics. Charts presents the most common chart types. However, it lacks some of the more advanced chart types found in dedicated charting packages. A screen-shot of a Numbers spreadsheet with an embedded Charts object is shown in Figure 4.

Figure 4 A Numbers spreadsheet with a (animated) 3-D chart

Spreadsheet 2000

Spreadsheet 2000 for Casady and Greene is a completely different conceptual approach to numerical calculation: It is object oriented. Instead of a large grid of cells that are related to each other via some hidden formula, there are small grids, just the size of the required input data. These cells are interconnected by various operators and feed output cells. The whole process is drag and drop. A new cell grid is obtained from the "Grid" palette, see Figure 5.

Figure 5 The Grid palette provides cells and labels.

The operators are provided by several built in palettes and customizable user defined palettes, more on that later. Once the input, operator and output cells have been defined, then they are connected by pulling lined between them. An example is shown in Figure 6.

Figure 6 Input cells and compound operators are in blue, labels in yellow, basic operators and output cells are in gray.

The workspace can soon become very cluttered, if Spreadsheet 2000 would not give an easy way out: Several operators can be combined to make a compound operator. Of course, these operators may themselves be composed of compound operators, and so on. This is truly an object oriented approach. These operators can be stored for reuse in user defined palettes.

The downside of such a unique approach is the lack of compatibility to Excel and other common formats. Spreadsheet 2000 is also somewhat weak in terms of its graphing capabilities, and is not super stable. However, Spreadsheet 2000 provides a quick way to prototype complex computations and run several scenarios. Further, by using "Reports," it is easy to provide solutions, complete with instructions, ready for use.

Summary

Microsoft Excel has not meet its match. However, both of these programs provide users with alternatives for specific tasks. Numbers and Charts is strong in charting, while Spreadsheet 2000 is the most intuitive approach devised for numerical calculations to date.

Tues. Nov 4, 1997

© The Huntsville Macintosh Users Group 1997